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Keys to Success: Motivation, Skill and Support

By Kathy Miller on July 8th, 2013

Employees excel when they are motivated, skilled and supported.  They need the right tools and an organizational culture that facilitates achievement.  Over the 27 years that I have been consulting, I have been asked to address performance problems with solutions that wouldn’t even come close to improving employees’ accomplishments.  When my clients call me about an individual or team performance problem, generally they have jumped to a conclusion about what is causing it and, therefore, what will solve it.

Often they call and ask for us to train or retrain the individuals or teams in question.  While I am a great supporter of providing people with training, so many times the performance issue is not due to lack of skill or knowledge — the only causes that can be addressed adequately with training.  However, managers and their employees are familiar with training and comfortable with training solutions.  Training events are concrete, frequently not too expensive and require little effort from the manager and the individuals involved.  However training will not solve problems that are due to a negative organizational culture, lack of clarity around goals and expectations and other circumstances outside of the control of the performer.

Sometimes the clients are convinced that the employee(s) in question are just not up to the job and want us to coach them out of the organization.  Usually, if this is the client’s agenda, they do not state it as such when they contact us.  They will tell us that they would like for us to work with the employee(s).  However, when we question them about the issues, we can tell that they have already given up on any real improvements in performance.

What many of us fail to see when we look at the behavior and performance of others is how situational factors including our own behaviors may be affecting the behaviors and performance of others.  This is especially true for those of us who are in leadership positions.  Performance is affected by our expectations for others and how we communicate to them.  Likewise performance is influenced by the degree to which we support the performers.  We should ask ourselves whether the poor performers have the right tools and an environment that encourages them to use their knowledge and skills.

Think about those times when your own performance was not up to par.  How would you describe the causes?  According to research (fundamental attribution error research), in comparison to how we explain the behavior of others, we are more likely to attribute our own behavior to external circumstances.   Thus rather than saying that we just didn’t have the skills or try hard enough to perform acceptably, we might say that our managers didn’t communicate their expectations clearly enough, or didn’t give us the support we needed to get the job done.  On the other hand, when we consider the causes of others’ poor performance, we are more likely to attribute it to their lack of know-how or motivation. (See Chris Argyris’s article entitled Teaching Smart People How to Learn).

So how do we sort out the real causes of performance problems?  A first step is to become aware of and avoid falling prey to our own biases in making attributions about the causes of behavior.  We might also take a second, somewhat more complicated step.  We can analyze the performance problem for the root causes (frequently referred to as performance analysis.  See Performance Analysis Tool Kit).

While any kind of root cause analysis takes effort, if the problem has serious consequences for you, the individual performers, or the organization, it is worth the time and energy to sort it out systematically.  Think of the time and money you will save if you come up with the right solution to the real problem!